Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mankind - Too Stupid to Survive Climate Change?

James Lovelock seems to have thrown in the towel on mankind. Four decades ago Lovelock introduced the theory of Gaia, the Earth functioning very much like an organism. He is considered a luminary of the global warming movement.

In a recent Guardian interview, Lovelock took the opportunity to praise 'legitimate' climate change skeptics, to upbraid some aspects of the scientific community, and, as always, to advocate the need for adaptation to what's coming instead of wasting time and resources on arresting global warming itself. This time he went so far as to suggest global warming is the sort of existential danger that may require the suspension of modern democracy:

...We need a more authoritative world. We've become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It's all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can't do that. You've got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it. And they should be very accountable too, of course.

But it can't happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems. What's the alternative to democracy? There isn't one. But even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.

...I don't know enough abut carbon trading, but I suspect that it is basically a scam. The whole thing is not very sensible. We have this crazy idea that we are setting an example to the world. What we're doing is trying to make money out of the world by selling them renewable gadgetry and green ideas. It might be worthy from the national interest, but it is moonshine if you think what the Chinese and Indians are doing [in terms of emissions]. The inertia of humans is so huge that you can't really do anything meaningful.

...I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change. We're very active animals. We like to think: "Ah yes, this will be a good policy," but it's almost never that simple. Wars show this to be true. People are very certain they are fighting a just cause, but it doesn't always work out like that. Climate change is kind of a repetition of a war-time situation. It could quite easily lead to a physical war. That's why I always come back to the safest thing to do being adaptation. For example, we've got to have good supplies of food. I would be very pleased to see this country and Europe seriously thinking about synthesising food.

The problem I always have with Lovelock's approach, and those of many in the science community, is that they tend to address global warming in isolation rather than incorporate it into the mix of manmade threats facing our species. As Maude Barlow points out, the looming global freshwater crisis is easily as dire a threat to mankind as global warming. Add to these the host of lesser but contributing problems such as desertification, resource depletion, species extinction, air,land and water contamination - and others - and the real nature of the problem we're facing begins to emerge.

I'm absolutely convinced that none of these problems, not one, can be solved in isolation of the others. They all must be solved for there to be a meaningful solution to any of them. Only by approaching them holistically will we identify the common threads that run through each and all of them. Only in recognizing the commonalities will we be able to shape the approaches we need to tackle them en masse.

Unfortunately I find myself agreeing with Lovelock that garden-variety democracy may be too flawed, too clumsy to meet these challenges or to prevent them from spreading beyond our control. The fact is we have no solutions to any of them, not even one.

Realize this. You are today standing on the cusp of what will become a world of rapidly accelerating change. Our ability to control that change is slipping through our fingers. It won't be global warming but the freshwater crisis that will hit first and it will hit us extremely hard and very soon. This is a danger that will be here, full blown, within 15-years if not sooner.

You may think of water in the context of what comes out of your taps on demand. You may think of water problems as a blight experienced in the poorer corners of the world. If so, you need to take a hard look at what's happening just next door, in the backyard of our immediate neighbour. Here's a glimpse from Maude Barlow excerpted from her book "The Global Water Crisis":

"...Florida is in trouble. The state's burgeoning population, with a net influx of 1,060 people every day, relies almost entirely upon its dwindling groundwater sources for its water supplies. To keep its fast-spreading lawns and golf courses green, the sunshine State is sucking up groundwater at such a rate that it has created thousands of sinkholes that devour anything - houses, cars and shopping malls... ..California has a twenty-year supply of freshwater left. New Mexico has only a ten-year supply. Arizona is out: it now imports all of its drinking water. ...scientists and water managers throughout the American Midwest and Southwest are saying that it is more than drought: major parts of the United States are running out of water. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that if current water use continues unchecked, thirty-six states will suffer water shortages within the next five years."

What passes for political leadership of any stripe in Canada never acknowledges these matters much less opens them for discussion with the Canadian public. At best they make some tangential reference usually accompanied by a meaningless bromide. Do they think Canada will be immune to the fallout from America's crises? Are they simply afraid to mention these matters lest that negatively impact their personal political aspirations? Harper certainly is, Ignatieff too. Layton simply takes a free ride on their silence. Unfortunately we'll all pay dearly for their political cowardice.


LeDaro said...

What is the alternative to democracy? What if the likes of Iggy or Harper are at the helm and I am not talking about Canada only.

What is needed is education? Universities and scientists have to carry out major awareness projects in every corner of the world. Once the absolute majority understands the dilemma then right person or persons may take charge. Until then no form of government will solve these problems.

The Mound of Sound said...

Unfortunately, LD, I don't think there's either the will or the resources to achieve the level of public awareness necessary to embrace change. We're still mired in 19th century political models that were never structured for this sort of thing.

Eventually, when conditions deteriorate sufficiently, we will drift into authoritarianism which, I expect, we'll even accept as necessary in the circumstances.

For some time I have held the same view expressed by Lovelock on this. I also believe we'll have to scrap much of our free-enterprise capitalism. If we don't, our chances of holding on to even a watered-down democracy instead of lapsing into an outright oligarchy could be very slim.

These will be particularly tough issues for Canadians because our country is one of but a handful that will be lightly touched by global warming. We'll have to decide how to defend our considerable advantages, blessings if you like.

I guess what most troubles me is that we don't have to become apocalyptic to begin the essential dialogue now. North American politicians seem catatonic when it comes to initiating public awareness efforts. The way they act you would assume there is no problem even on the distant horizon. I believe they're acting out of personal political ambition and rank cowardice.

LeDaro said...

"..we will drift into authoritarianism.." MoS my question is what happens if the dictator is on the wrong side of issues. How do you choose or appoint the right dictator? That is where universal awareness is needed. History shows us that dictators very rarely do anything which is for general good.
I do not disagree with you on the need for action but authoritarianism is not the answer.

The Mound of Sound said...

By our complacency in allowing these environmental, security and resource issues to worsen, we will forfeit at least much of our power to choose or appoint leadership. Many think the oligarchs are already moving into the power structure. They point to America's "bought and paid for" Congress as their proof. It really doesn't matter who you elect unless that person truly represents your and your fellow constituents' interests.

LeDaro said...

"It really doesn't matter who you elect unless that person truly represents your and your fellow constituents' interests." Exactly. That is why we need informed electorate.

LeDaro said...

I should add that if U.S electorates are not careful, the next president could be a teabagger. The loudest could prevail

Anyong said...

"That is why we need informed electorate". Just ask an aquaintance you know where oxygen comes from which we breath. Sorry but they will look at you as if you have gone off your head. Then, a person gets this sort of quizzical look. You know they don't know. Tell them 40% of the earth's oxygen comes from the Atlantic Ocean, 5% from the Pacific and the rest from trees and you will experience a freeze out like nothing else. When educated people can't answer that question, how do concerned environmentalists think we are going to deal with MOS's truth in his blog. We have to do a 100% turn around if we are to do anything about this problem...do you see it happening any time soon? Just advertising companies alone trying to convience everyone to buy more is enough to make a person depressed. People singling out a certain project while ignoring others is as remiss as those who do not now where the oxygen we breath comes from. The Golf of Mexico is already dead as are many areas up and down the eastern and western seaboard of North and South America. The Portugese are still going inside the Newfoundland fishing limit and taking off the bottom and throwing more than half back into the ocean. Who in Canada knows this? We are in for one hell of a time and I just don't want to think about it any more. Why? Because we have nothing but dead-beats in Ottawa and in the Provincal Capitols. It doesn't matter either, what party we are talking about...at the moment they are all tarred with the same brush.

LeDaro said...

You use the language which public can understand. Such as; if we don't stop pollution we all will be dead in so many years. You don't have to give a relativity theory equation type of stuff.

LeDaro said...

Look at the perverted and the language they used to defeat the healthcare bill- "death panels" and "killing grandma".

LMA said...

It's so true MoS that we should be addressing the "mix of manmade threats facing our species", not just global warming,e.g., Harper & Ignatieff are relying on CCS to control CO2 emissions from the Tar Sands, but what about the poisoning of the Athabasca watershed, the draining of the water table in Alberta, the clearing of the boreal forest? However, I wouldn't discount Layton and the NDP. It was the NDP who advanced the Climate Change Accountability Act until the Liberals caved. It is the NDP who will be introducing a bill to stop the Enbridge pipeline in B.C.

I also agree with Lovelock as quoted in the Guardian: "I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate change...the inertia of humans is so huge that you can't really do anything meaningful".

So if the situation deteriorates rapidly and the water wars hit us, it could very well require the suspension of democracy to fight for survival.

LD and Anyong, the government won't act until public pressure forces the issue, and right now the public seems to prefer to be in a state of denial. There is a lot of information out there on the environmental problems facing us, but as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Unfortunately I suspect Lovelock is right when he says "only a catastrophic event would now persuade humanity to take the threat of climate change seriously enough".

LeDaro said...

LMA, we have to get people out of "the state of denial" and that can be done by raising awareness.

People were in a state of denial when it came to universal suffrage for women and blacks. It was through raising awareness that it was achieved and no authoritarianism was involved.

You have to sell the idea to the public and there are good sale jobs and bad sale jobs. Stephane Dion’s green shift was botched sale job. On the other hand Al Gore raised awareness about global warming internationally and it did become a topic of discussion. Few more and younger Al Gores are needed.

LMA said...

I certainly hope LD that the situation never reaches a crisis similar to a state of war. However if people feel their lives are threatened by water and food shortages who knows what measures might be necessary to maintain control.

Thankfully, there are groups such as Greenpeace who are devoted to raising awareness. There is also hope that Obama will be able to legislate GHG emissions controls if not through congress then through the EPA. The opposition he faces is formidable, but so is his determination.

It just saddens me that time is running out for the poor in vulnerable countries, as well as so many threatened plant and animal species.

The Mound of Sound said...

I think when Lovelock argues that only a catastrophic event will bring humanity to its senses he's being optimistic.

Catastrophic events are happening but predominantly in tropical and southern hemispheric regions. Some are being whipsawed by now annual drought and flood cycles with all the associated problems of food security and public health threats. Others, such as Australia, are beset by chronic droughts and groundwater depletion.

Who is in a position to act in anything approaching an effective manner? Why that would be us, the industrialized democracies. I've coined a phrase for us - "last and least." We're the last nations to be effected and the impacts are the least relative, that is, to other continents and regions.

"Last and least" creates blinders that limit our perception of environmental degradation. Problems in Africa or Asia or the Middle East aren't particularly alarming when we have abundant gas at the pump and seemingly endless water at the kitchen tap.

We see global warming in the context of what's happening in Canada and, even then, we're oblivious to most of it. Our media pay the issue lip service at best and our government leaders stand wilfully mute.

I expect we'll see plenty of catastrophes but they'll progress slowly enough that we'll remain pretty complacent to them. The only catastrophe that counts will be the one that actually motivates us to change and change means sacrificing some of the comforts we take as our right. What that means is that we're going to have to wait until catastrophe arrives at our own doorstep (or perhaps the Americans').

A key point to remember is that chances aren't very good that we can wait until conditions worsen sufficiently at home. The reason for that is that environmental catastrophe in distant lands can, no make that "will", destabilize nations, perhaps entire regions. These are the security threats envisioned by the CIA, the British Ministry of Defence and, most recently, the Pentagon in its latest Quadrennial Defense Review.

By and large we fail to see how this looming situation could quickly go sideways on us. Do we really expect these destabilized nations to be complacent about the source of the woes that befall them, us? Do we not foresee that they'll demand redress or, failing that, retribution? What are we going to say when they come knocking and they surely will?

I'd bet that, within the next decade, we'll come to realize that the Green Revolution that has allowed the world to not only feed the poor but to burgeon in population has been a Trojan Horse.

The Green Revolution has seen a doubling of food production but at an enormous and unsustainable cost. It has required a tripling of water for agriculture and a massive use of fertilizers and pesticides. The accumulated effects of fertilizers and pesticides have been to render arable farmland barren. However we've financed this agricultural miracle by a constant water deficit, steadily dipping into our groundwater bank account. In many places that is already coming to an end witnessed by sharp declines in farmland.

How are we to respond to this? There is no 'fix' for it although there are several reforms we can introduce to conserve and more effectively utilize freshwater stocks. In other words, we can treat some of the symptoms but we cannot cure the disease.

I'm sorry to be so cynical but, when catastrophe strikes home, our domestic interests will completely trump our global concern. To hell with "women and children first." We'll use our lifeboats for our own. I expect it's going to be an "us and them" world as we've not experienced it before.

The Mound of Sound said...

A point of clarification, LMA. This concerns CCS, carbon capture and sequestration, as a remedy for the Tar Sands. Even the government of Alberta's target for Athabasca CCS is only 20% of total GHG emissions. And, of course, this is all to happen at some time in the future, the same story we've been hearing for a generation. Worse yet, the Oil Patch is looking to the provincial and federal governments to fund or subsidize any CCS project. Polluter pays? Not if you're big enough.

Anonymous said...

Southern Alberta is already in the state of crises regarding the ground water table as it continues into its state of drought.